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As We Honor Veterans, a Film to Look Out For and Questions to Ask

It always irks me when the well-intentioned provide teaching ideas tied to various holidays or events on the day in question. After all, if the content is anything more involved than a few discussion items you can easily dovetail into existing lesson plans or library programs, then what are you supposed to do with it—use it next year?

Well, that’s exactly the advice I’m going to give… but, hey, at least I’m upfront about it: though Dan Hayes’s heartfelt documentary Honor Flight doesn’t have its (limited) theatrical release until December 7, I urge media specialists, film programmers, social studies teachers and other educators to check it out with Veterans Day, 2013 firmly in mind. Here’s the trailer:

As you can see, Honor Flight concerns the efforts of a non-profit that’s dedicated to flying vets to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.  And as you can also see, it plays on the audience’s heartstrings to a considerable degree.

But Honor Flight is more than that: it’s about how a community meaningfully and authentically interacts with its veterans, and in turn what this says about the community itself. True, at times I found myself wondering if ten or so minutes couldn’t have been shaved off the runtime, but by the time the doc ended I realized its emotional content had been slowly building in me despite my impatience. The end result? I feel it’ll be very difficult for anyone to watch Honor Flight and not be moved by it on some level. Probably many levels.

Okay, so much for the “review” portion of this post. Here are some practical ideas related to Honor Flight and other similar docs that you may already be screening.

  • Make explicit the connection between the eyewitness accounts in the film and oral history, an important part of many curricula. Ask: What kinds of questions do you think were asked (off-screen) that prompted the personal narratives offered by the veterans?
  • Likewise, use such documentaries to inspire and inform digital storytelling keyed to armed conflicts. Draw attention to how an effective doc combines voice-over with current and archival footage as well as static images such as personal photos and historical artifacts such as magazine covers.
  • Consider pairing non-fiction films with classic Hollywood features, perhaps ones made during the period that either they, or the doc, depicts. For example, comparing and contrasting Honor Flight with William Wyler’s Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) holds all kinds of learning opportunities. Ask: Which aspects of this Hollywood film are fact-based? Which represent dramatizations or generalizations to prove a point? How might the presence of a real veteran, Harold Russell, in Wyler’s film blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction?
  • Identify and explore the embedded values in the media product. Admirably, whatever nationalistic or patriotic goals Honor Flight has are served implicitly, not explicitly: the focus is on the soldiers’ love of each other, their families, and their communities, not their country per se. Ask: How do media production elements such as music or symbols (e.g., flags) deliver patriotic messages even when the surface content appears to be addressing other issues?

Finally, as an added bonus—and this is probably true of any media product that attempts to depict senior citizens authentically—films such as Honor Flight can help educators who wish to tackle the issue of ageism in society. By countering the frequent stereotypes of the elderly found in pop culture with the quiet dignity and unsung heroics of those who live all around us, such films can make young people stop, question, and re-evaluate the media representations they’d previously accepted with little or no thought.

About Peter Gutierrez